Reykjavík - A view from our expert author

Reykjavik, Iceland by Tsuguliev, ShutterstockThe colourful streets of Iceland's capital with majestic Mount Esja in the background © Tsuguliev, Shutterstock

A stunning backdrop pronounces Iceland’s picturesque capital: on one side of town stand rows of prim coloured rooftops outlined by a silvery, swan-filled lake. On the other, city streets slope down to the wind-capped bay of Faxaflói and a pair of quiet, bright-green islands. The mighty ridge of Mt Esja rises in the distance, perhaps the most treasured landmark in Reykjavík. The city proper spreads out across Seltjarnanes, a peninsula whose optimal position affords (on a clear day) a tremendous panorama that extends from the tip of the Reykjanes Peninsula (near Keflavík Airport) all the way up to the icy dome of Snæfellsnes glacier, a good 100km away. This incredible view – and the remarkable sky that frames it – seems an open invitation to explore. 

What sets the capital apart from the rest of the country is the presence of people, cars, and trees – all rare species elsewhere in Iceland. Indeed, appreciating Iceland’s largest town raises the question, is Reykjavík a village that acts like a city or a city that feels like a village? On the metropolitan side of things sit the Icelandic stock exchange, a massive harbour filled with massive ships, a national parliament building, and an art, music, and restaurant scene that rivals anything in either London or Manhattan. Village-wise, the air is unbelievably clean, whales are jumping in the harbour, the tallest building is a church, and by the second day you’ll start recognising the faces you pass in the street. It’s comforting to find such big-city delights in such a small and unusual package.   

One unfortunate result of the developing tourist industry is the trend to market nearly every destination in the country as a day trip from Reykjavík, squeezing the city’s delights in at night or in between glacier tours and horseriding. Avoid falling into that trap and you’re bound to have a great time.

Aside from the spectacular view, Reykjavík is known best for its highly individual style, having the strange effect of making one feel rather cosy through its unstuck version of minimalism. The city displays some true architectural gems, including the massive housing projects built for the population influx following World War II. Other highlights can be spotted in the perfect little Art Deco hotels, painted Scandinavian timber houses, fervent steeples upon tiny cathedrals, and a few functional classics from the Danish era. The honest ensemble is part of the attraction and begs a walk down unknown streets in all of their two- and three-storey glory. 

Reykjavík also boasts the title of the world’s northernmost capital (at 64° 08´N), which should by no means be interpreted as the coldest. Rather, this balmy harbour town features the kind of hazy undecided weather felt in San Francisco or Cardiff, which makes those blue-sky days all the more splendid. Winter’s few hours of reluctant daylight – followed by a slight chance of horizontal sleet – can deter the more superficial visitor, but even indoors, this city is unique. 

Houses in Reykjavik, Iceland by Tsuguliev, ShutterstockBrightly coloured houses line the streets of this quirky capital © Tsuguliev, Shutterstock

Visitors often wonder how many Icelanders live in Reykjavík and the answer is that most do. The official tally for the city proper is 115,000. If you include all of the neighbouring towns that have now merged into the ‘city’, the capital area has a total population of around 200,000, which comprises nearly 60% of Iceland’s total population of 300,000 people. Still, the summer months see much of the city pick up and venture out to more rural climes, exchanging the pressures of ‘city life’ for the joys of the wilderness.    

It’s nearly impossible to make any generalisations about the people of Reykjavík in terms of attitude, dialect, culture, or lifestyle. Instead, consider this town as the urban expression of Iceland as a whole, which is pretty diverse. One face of the city is dedicated solely to tourists, which is welcoming and sincere, if not slightly seasonal. Within that same grid lies the busy heart of Reykjavík where Iceland’s intellectual, financial, and cultural elite put in their serious hours. Weekends witness the outrageous nightlife for which the city is famed, but by Sunday morning, the streets are as silent as the sleepy suburbs nearby. In fact, just five minutes from the city centre you’ll find wide pavements, clipped grass and open gardens, single-family houses with two-car garages, and giant shopping malls connected by four-lane highways (not the party town you might have expected). 

Owing to its infrastructure, Reykjavík receives the lion’s share of tourists to Iceland. To be sure, the city surely deserves a more intimate acquaintance than the one to three days often allotted by harried visitors, but if that’s all the time you’ve got, then only feel a little bit dismayed. Reykjavík’s the one kind of town where it’s not too difficult to make every minute count, as long as you’ve got the energy. One unfortunate result of the developing tourist industry is the trend to market nearly every destination in the country as a day trip from Reykjavík, squeezing the city’s delights in at night or in between glacier tours and horseriding. Avoid falling into that trap, or else entertaining the faulty notion of ‘doing’ the capital, and you’re bound to have a great time.

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